From adventure sports to reaching for the stars, Laura Rose Semo Scharfman, an avionics mechanical engineer at Space X, is always on the go. Explore her early inspiration, science in the movies, and thoughts on women in engineering.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become an engineer? What drew you to the space program?
I always enjoyed science and math when I was growing up, and like most kids, dinosaurs and spaceships were some of my favorites. At some point in high school I went to see an IMAX movie about the International Space Station and by the end of the film I knew that I had to be involved with the space program. When it was time to apply for colleges, I thought physics would be a good fit for me, but when I got to Carnegie Mellon for a tour, I went into the machine shop and decided on the spot that I needed something hands on, and Mechanical Engineering would be a great fit.
During college I made it a point to take summer internships at aerospace companies, with the hopes of one day working for NASA. When I graduated I was elated to have a job offer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and moved to California in the summer of 2007. After a few years at JPL, I realized that the pace of work and the lack of innovation that was allowed in most of my work left me feeling unsatisfied, so I moved to a fast-paced private rocket company – SpaceX.
Tell us about your participation in adventure sports. What have you done recently? Can your enthusiasm for exploring outer space be linked to your love of adventure sports?
I’m very outdoorsy person; I love rock climbing, mountaineering, and skiing. I’ve taken 10-day backpacking trips every summer for the last 15 years, with this year’s trip being in the Eastern Sierras. I find that this love for “extreme” hobbies is not uncommon among young engineers. I think most young people that work extremely hard at their job are likely to want to play just as hard when they leave work. Whether it’s climbing mountains, racing motorcycles, or owning a business on the side, most of the young engineers I know are just as intense outside of work as they are in the office.
Engineering is one of the few fields where women didn’t make a lot of progress in the last half of the 20th Century. Is the field attracting more women these days? Why do you think that is? How can we encourage more women to choose engineering as a career?
Engineering is certainly a male-dominated field, but there are many more women engineers now than there were 20 or 30 years ago. I think there is still some cultural stigma around math and science being “for men” and it’s often intimidating for a woman to enter a field with that stigma, especially in late high school or early college where so much attention is placed on appearances and stereotypes. As more women enter these fields it becomes less intimidating and the whole stigma around these fields change.
For better or worse, men and women do think about things in different ways, yet engineering is highly quantitative and is often taught with a very black and white attitude. In my experience, women are often more interested in process of solving a problem and men are more often interested in the solution itself. If teachers and professors were to focus more on the method of finding a solution, and be more accommodating to different learning styles it would be very helpful in encouraging woman to pursue engineering.
On a personal level, I think female engineers need to reach out to girls at younger ages to show them that there are career options outside of the typical female roles they may see at home or in the media.
How did you become involved with the Exchange?
Just like so many great introductions, I met The Exchange’s Director of Development, Rick Loverd, at a bar through a mutual friend. One evening in December of 2010, I went with a friend to see a screening of TRON: Legacy that included a panel discussion by a few members of the Science & Entertainment Exchange. After the show my friend (also in the SEE) and I met with some members of the panel at a bar near the theater. Rick and I started chatting and realized that we had a lot in common: nerdiness, interest in movies, interest in space, beer, etc. We exchanged contact information and Rick came to SpaceX for a tour a few weeks later. Since then, I have worked with the Exchange giving tours of SpaceX to some influential people in the entertainment industry as well as consulting on movie plots for upcoming films.
Is there a storyline you would like to see in a TV show or movie that involves your work that hasn’t yet been covered?
There are a lot of science fictions films, books, and TV shows out there about space exploration. I think a few themes that haven’t been touched on are the cowboy spirit of the space industry, and the deep-rooted sense of teamwork that is so important to making a rocket fly.
In the early days of almost all aerospace companies there was a small team of people working to get an engine in motion, a plane off the ground, or a rocket out of the atmosphere. These people didn’t care how much work it took or how many times they had to fail, they just knew they had to make it work. For something like a rocket or a space ship, the systems involved are so complex that a lot of decisions need to be made on the fly without the stereotypical calculation process that most people associate with engineering. Although decisions are made with much more care as a company matures, the attitude of “just make it work” has persisted and made SpaceX the quick-thinking, fast paced company it is today.
Along with that there is a very deep sense of teamwork at SpaceX. Every person who works for the company fulfills a very real need, and our accomplishments could not have been made without each person. The intense time and effort spent with one’s coworkers engenders feelings of reliability and trust, and the social nature of people at this company creates lots of strong friendships. Each time we launch a rocket, every employee knows it could not have been accomplished without everyone else on the team.
Do films and television shows influence young people to want to become scientists and engineers? Should that be a goal of scientists and engineers who consult for film makers?
Films and television shows absolutely influence young people to choose their future interests and careers. I personally credit the space station IMAX movie with pushing me into the space industry. I think scientists and engineers need to stress to the entertainment industry how much fun their jobs can be. Kids often gravitate towards careers that sound fun or cool to them and I think we need to find a way to present these ‘alternative’ careers to kids in that light. The point of science and engineering fields is to either make things work or explain how they work, and that’s something everyone is interested in. If children could link dinosaurs and spaceships (cool!) to being a scientist (fun!) from an early age I think there would be a lot more scientists and engineers in the future.
Do you think that the founding of SpaceX would be a good subject for a movie? Who should play Elon Musk? Who should play you?!!!
I think the founding of SpaceX would be a great story. I hear Robert Downey, Jr.’s character in Iron Man was actually based on Elon Musk, so maybe that would work again. As for me, I’d like to be played by a smart lady who looks just as good with glasses and a wrench as she does with stilettos and a cocktail.